I Hate Magic
May 1, 2013 12:26 AM   Subscribe

 
No time to read this right now, but judging from the beginning at least he's exactly right.
posted by JHarris at 12:58 AM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I agree 100%, but I think it also goes for many tabletop RPG systems like D&D. The most evocative magic I've seen is in Unknown Armies (magic is based on self-destructive obsession that creates a paradox in reality or emulating univeral archtypes) or the freeform magic of Mage. Neither of them could be modeled in a computer game, though. For good game magic you'd need it to be part of the storyline and quests, like the religious rituals you undergo sometimes in the Fallout games - take a drug, hunt a beast.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:02 AM on May 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Video game magic in general is too tame, the rules it follows tend to be obvious and superficial rather than weird and deep. Making magic something that only happens in quests or the storyline when explicitly put there by the game designer is counter-productive because it changes magic from a system the player can interact with into just another special effect the game designer can throw into cut-scenes.

The closest things video games have to 'real' magic are glitches, whereby the player can exploit the strange and complicated underlying reality of the machine code to do things unintended by the game designer.
posted by Pyry at 1:32 AM on May 1, 2013 [35 favorites]


This is magic:
"As soon as José Arcadio closed the bedroom door the sound of a pistol shot echoed through the house. A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta's chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread."
Give me magic like that in a game.
posted by empath at 1:38 AM on May 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


Riven did a really good job that sense of magic, I thought.
posted by polymodus at 1:38 AM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I know it's far from literature-deep, but nethack's magic system has a depth of complexity (much like the game itself) that I think gets closer to this. For example, even if you're spoiled, getting to the point where you can repair/erodeproof weapons and armor can be non-trivial, and if you're not spoiled it could be a while before you figure out the interaction between two mechanics that makes it possible.
posted by weston at 1:46 AM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pyry, that's an excellent and unexpected idea!

I think programming introductions could be made much more interesting and wonderful if you present the computer language as essentially magic, which it in some ways literally is.

Most "learn to program" books are very prosaic. There seems to be an underlying assumption that the low-level stuff of code is not intrinsically fascinating. So to make it "appealing" you add in a cool GUI, or something related to Twitter, or a game.

I'd like to see a "learn to program" book that's more like a secret introduction to the arcane black magic of assembly language.
posted by mbrock at 1:50 AM on May 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


I liked the article, though I think I'm looking for slightly different things in gaming than the author. I just want fun mechanics I can play with and, well, game. I'm on the same side as he in opposing lazy game design, though. We've already played the game that makes us collect money or plot coupons to gain new toys so we can take out the end boss in the way it was designed to be taken out. Far too many times.

Also--Metafilter: guarded by something terrible with a hundred screaming mouths.
posted by tykky at 2:16 AM on May 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


Most "learn to program" books are very prosaic. There seems to be an underlying assumption that the low-level stuff of code is not intrinsically fascinating. So to make it "appealing" you add in a cool GUI, or something related to Twitter, or a game.

People are building entire working 16 bit CPUs in Minecraft, which is sort of like this, although I'm sure the people doing that were thoroughly geeks already.
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:40 AM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


"In old Japan, shamans might afflict their enemies with the inu-gami, or dog spirit possession. To do so, they would bury a dog up to its neck in the ground with a bowl of food just out if its reach. When the dog went mad with hunger, the shaman would behead it and then send the spirit on its mission of revenge in exchange for offerings of food."

Wow, shit got real in medieval Japan
posted by Blasdelb at 2:48 AM on May 1, 2013 [15 favorites]


I'd like to see a "learn to program" book that's more like a secret introduction to the arcane black magic of assembly language.

Done.
posted by empath at 2:49 AM on May 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


The closest things video games have to 'real' magic are glitches

Exploits in table-based role playing games are similarly spooky.

Behold the Perpetual Damage Machine, a bit of munchkinry cobbled together from out-of-print rulebooks for Dungeons and Dragons.

- find at least four willing victims assistants
- cast an obscure "Martyr" spell which causes the caster to absorb all damage done to others
- use an even more obscure "Share pain" effect that distributes damage from the caster to others

The result is a positive feedback loop. If the caster suffers any injury the feedback loop will cause her (and her assistants) to instantly suffer infinite damage.* Why would you want to inflict infinite damage on yourself? Yet another little-known spell, "Holy suffering," grants a skill check bonus proportionate to the amount of damage received. This includes knowledge checks. While taking infinite damage, your character will be omniscient.

The rules of the universe that make it possible are obscure and hidden in forgotten texts, and only an obsessed, twisted mind would ever think to put them together this way. Exploiting the suffering of others and flirting with death to get forbidden knowledge?
That's necromancy.

* You'll want to have cast "delay death" and "beastland ferocity" so that the caster will remain conscious and momentarily alive despite having suffered infinite damage, thus able to make use of her infinite knowledge. I leave rules-lawyerly techniques for self-recovery from infinite damage as an exercise for the reader.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:14 AM on May 1, 2013 [79 favorites]


After this, we can go next door and listen to the physicist complain about SF novels and games. There is also a linguist, who is not happy about the way languages are used, and a doctor who wants a word about how quickly your characters recover from fights.

Which is not, exactly, to disagree with the author, but to point out that he's kind of missed the point. Video games have to have "reliable magic" I order to solve the puzzles and fights to progress. Otherwise, the game is going to be very random.

I disagree with his assertion that magic needs to be rare, though. The table top RPGs set in Glorantha (Hero Wars most recently) are full of magic, yet the dedicated players, the rules, and the setting itself work hard to keep that numinous. Unknown Armies, noted above, also has a good feel for the weird and limnal in magic. Unfortunately, the end result of his suggestions would likely be more like Chivalry and Sorcery, with wizards condemned to rather glum quests for ingredients, followed by years of down time to develop new spells and magic items. More "realistic," perhaps, but there is a reason why not many people fondly remember playing C&S.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:18 AM on May 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Metafilters Own DrMaciver wrote a very good response to this article a few days back.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:20 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Video games have to have "reliable magic" I order to solve the puzzles and fights to progress.

Well, only if you think that videogames need to have a challenge that has to be overcome. The non-magical nature of videogame magic is really another form of ludo-narrative dissonance, where the need for a game-like structure of skill-mastery, challenge and failure states wrecks narrative realism. All the Bioshock games suffer from it terribly, for example.

Really, magic is a question -- 'how did that happen?'. Once you let the player understand and master whatever magical system you invent, the question is answered and magic evaporates.
posted by empath at 3:26 AM on May 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Metafilter's own, uh, me also wrote a riff on the topic. daisyk and I are actually planning to prototype an action-RPG based on making bargains for magic powers today.
posted by Zarkonnen at 3:27 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


daisyk and I are actually planning to prototype an action-RPG based on making bargains for magic powers today.

It's still a system, and so not magic.

You know what had the best magic of any game I've ever seen? Journey (video of the ending)-- incredibly simple, beautiful, evocative, mostly unexplained and allegorical.

Once you attach numbers to it, you destroy it. Magic should be something that you feel in your heart, not something you understand with your brain.
posted by empath at 3:36 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Magic is cheat codes.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:14 AM on May 1, 2013


The problem with making magic used by players in games non-understandable is that disconnecting cause and effect is a surefire way to make people not enjoy themselves. So for a story, I agree. For a game, it wouldn't work, but I think there's still scope for making the magic more unheimlich.
posted by Zarkonnen at 4:16 AM on May 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Games treat magic like it's a career. You either hit-with-swords or you do-fire-hands. But magic ought to lie on an axis of its own, one with its own gameplay rules and challenges. Wizards don't do combat, at least not the way we usually think of combat.

One thing I liked about Harry Potter was that it was smart enough to make its final conflict more than a series of recited incantations. There was a code, and Harry's breaking it was what allowed him to win the final duel. The movie, of course, completely destroyed that because the movie is the spawn of Satan's irritating cousin Maurice.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:42 AM on May 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think that Magicka had one of the better (and more fun) magic systems I've played. Using magic requires calling up a particular combination of eight elements, all of which interact with each other and with the environment in a variety of ways. Many of the results are as likely to hurt you as anyone else. It's not unusual at all to kill yourself and all your allies in a spectacular fashion because of a miscast spell, or a misreading of the situation (such as if you summon a lightning bolt while standing in a puddle).
posted by alexei at 4:46 AM on May 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Once you let the player understand and master whatever magical system you invent, the question is answered and magic evaporates.

I dunno. The problem is that, in this world, magic either doesn't work or works in so subjective a way as to defy categorization and/or repetition. Games, generally, don't take place in this world; they take place in worlds were magic works reliably. And, specifically works reliably in a way that lets you battle monsters. So it's a little like complaining that time paradoxes work differently in different seasons of Dr. Who -- maybe time just works like that in that universe or multiverse or whatever.

A slightly more interesting question is that, given that games take place in worlds where magic works reliably, why is it only useful for fighting? Generally video games are all about the fighting and puzzle solving, but there are a few RPGs (Hero Quest and, weirdly, Exalted, which give some thought to "what people who aren't murder hobos do with magic." Exalted says that they make stuff for murder hobs, which is a bit disappointing, but Hero Quest spends a lot of time on the idea that farmers, for example, worship gods who give them power to be better farmers. By farming, they touch their god (or whatever), and bring some of the Platonic-ish essence of Farming to the mundane wold. Reliable, but also homey and touches on issues of how people relate to their higher sleves and similar things.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:47 AM on May 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


if you hate magic so much why don't you cast magic missile at it
posted by LogicalDash at 4:51 AM on May 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think the real magic of Elder Scrolls comes when the protagonists encounter the really spooky problems of Daedra and Aedra, and discovering that very few people (if anyone) quite understands what's really happening. Some of this is written around game mechanics, such as the decision to treat almost all of the possible endings of Daggerfall as alternate historical events that happened simultaneously.

In Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter, there's a sense that your mage's ability to chuck out fireballs or the cleric's ability to throw buffs on demand are just the most trivial applications of magic. The real problems involve unique paradoxes and riddles, often involving gods or the attempt to become one.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:01 AM on May 1, 2013


Pretentious twaddle. As well complain that boardgames don't have mechanics for wonder and amazement.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:34 AM on May 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


As well complain that boardgames don't have mechanics for wonder and amazement.

Clearly you haven't been playing Dominion.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:38 AM on May 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


This article is basically looking at magic from a simulationist perspective, and outside of a few specific genres, making a game a better simulation of reality often makes it less fun to play. Take a hunger mechanic for instance. Most games do not require the player to eat food in any way resembling how people eat food in real life. Even games with a relatively complex hunger system like Minecraft don't treat food in the game the same way that people treat food in real life, because in almost every game that would get in the way of what is actually fun about it. Does it make the game more fun to start off with only very basic non-flashy spells and have the player complete arduous tasks to unlock new spells one by one, rather than being able to easily build out the kind of character they want to play from the beginning? That's the main question that a game designer needs to ask if they want to incorporate these types of ideas into a game and still make it an enjoyable experience.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:42 AM on May 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Once I realized that magic-users in RPG's are essentially scientists, everything changed for me. The ability to cast spells, etc is a by-product of their attempt to understand the forces in the world around them. Treasure, etc is merely a means to am end to fund their research. Adventures are essentially opportunities for field experiments to find out what happens when you apply magic on things or to observe and study magical phenomena.
posted by KingEdRa at 5:46 AM on May 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


Yeah, Magic is basically OtherPhysics in virtually every setting where magic is controlled by players. Freeform weirdness is awesome, and it's somewhat doable in table-top RPGs, but flat-out impossible in anything not adjudicated by a live mind.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:52 AM on May 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


KingEdRa : And that's why I want to play/make/bring into spontaneous being Girl Genius: The RPG.

GenjiandProust: A slightly more interesting question is that, given that games take place in worlds where magic works reliably, why is it only useful for fighting?

Putting on my gamedev hat, the reason is that more interesting magic effects than "fireball that does 30 points of damage" are harder to implement, and much, much harder to balance.

A classic example is that in many CRPGs, high-level characters are capable of turning whole squads of enemies into shreds with a wave of their hand, and are yet stymied by a modest brick wall that would not stand up to five minutes of concerted effort with a sledgehammer. Giving mages the ability to kill enemies really efficiently is easy to balance: just make the enemies tougher or more numerous. But the ability to just ignore the walls that the level designers put there for a reason opens up a whole can of worms: if you're meant to walk around the wall and meet someone who advances the plot, if you can just walk through it, that makes things much more complicated.

And it's not just single effects: you have to consider combinations too, like the Perpetual Damage Machine justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow mentions above. As Pope Guilty says, in a pen and paper RPG, the GM can just slap the player when they attempt something like this, but in a CRPG it's a game-breaker.

So we get a whole lot of generic offensive/defensive magic, plus maybe some simple utility spells like "identify item". NetHack probably does the best job of having a varied set of magics, and it does so after decades of development efforts mapping out the corner cases of what should happen if you eg ingest a ring of levitation while being polymorphed into a metallovore.
posted by Zarkonnen at 5:57 AM on May 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


As I said above, I think this is pretty much the complaint of any specialist/enthusiast faced with fiction that isn't built around their interest. For example, as a librarian, I am slightly taken aback when the heroes of Supernatural roll into a small town, connect up to wifi, and find the entirety of the town's newspapers' backfield easily searchable online. Now, that scenario is slightly less believable than that show's angels, but, since I mostly enjoy the show, I just roll my eyes and let it go. In the work of Supernatural, I gather, there has been a lot of money spent on wireless infrastructure and digitizing small town newspapers. If I can accept vampires and Tricksters, why not that?
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:58 AM on May 1, 2013


A classic example is that in many CRPGs, high-level characters are capable of turning whole squads of enemies into shreds with a wave of their hand, and are yet stymied by a modest brick wall that would not stand up to five minutes of concerted effort with a sledgehammer.

Or, I imagine, the designers could:

A) Not rely on a "plot on rails."

B) have the key character appear at a given time rather than place.

C) instead of "fireball," have some kind of psychic attack or a "melt flesh" spell or "Strangling Shadows" or some other attack that doesn't damage property.

I mean no one is asking why the heroes, who can decapitate dragons, surrender to the king's guards and go to prison... Or, heck, just knock down that wall with a hammer.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:10 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


LogicalDash:
Magic is cheat codes.
No, cheat codes are CHIM.
posted by charred husk at 6:36 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Start the player off with basic spells, but make sure that any advanced hexes come from joining a guild or finding them in the world.
Reminds me of a game I made using RPG Maker 2000 a decade ago. I had the one mage who gained new spells only through finding story items. Like fighting a shifty water elemental to get the advanced water spell, or teleporting to the top of a mountain to get the advanced air spell. Each spell element had its own distinct flavour too, not just a blue-beats-red-beats-green sort of way, but Fire was more powerful, Water had a high damage variance, Thunder had a chance to shock, etc.

I still sold Magic Gatorade at every store though, so I can't say I'm a visionary.
posted by cyberscythe at 6:49 AM on May 1, 2013


>Metafilter's own, uh, me also wrote a riff on the topic.

I really like these ideas. The permanent (if often small) repercussions tie into the idea of magic as it's own strange system rather than an alternate career in combat; thematically, it encourages the player to think of magic along the same lines as making IRL sacrifices of moral codes, family ties, etc. for money or power. This is a much tastier flavor of magic than the "level up, buy spellbooks from vendor" option.

Granted, this works best if 'mage' isn't a player class so much as a class of player abilities. That way, players who occasionally cast spells make a few lasting sacrifices and are presented in-game as veteran warriors whose narrow eyesight or occasional mysterious stumble are just another kind of battle scar, while players who commit to the spellcasting route quickly go too far and end up physically decrepit, barely able to swing a sword but dangerous in a whole different way.

(The way in which such a world treats its elderly would be different than ours, I imagine.)

Spells as rewards for artificially constraining your actions as per a bargain with a deity is also a great idea because if the player can break the deal at any time (run away from a fight, lie in dialogue), then not only are they in the position of actively keeping up the bargain, which flavors the game experience even when they're not actually spellcasting, you've also precisely linked a significant gameplay choice with a significant narrative choice, and you've done it explicit player buy-in.

Basically, I really like your ideas and if I ever made a game I would steal them. apologies in advance
posted by postcommunism at 7:00 AM on May 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Minecraft mod Thaumcraft addresses many of the author's complaints. And it's a really fun game, too. The end result is magic devices; wands and golems and stuff. But you have to earn it by meticulously studying rare materials at a research table until you get lucky enough to work out that, say, Fire + Light + Power is the recipe for Nitor, a magical torch. And that's an easy recipe, the hard ones involve 5 or more aspects including rare ones that only show up in obscure crafted items or uncommon monster drops. I spent hours doing the research, it was a lot of fun. (Although in the age of Internet you can also just look up all the spoilers; boo!)

Thaumcraft also has a beautiful world-of-magic system. The world is suffused by the Aura, rooted in various Nodes that are invisible to start. When you use magic it draws from the Aura, when you use it poorly it generates Flux which creates bad side effects like evil monster spawns and lightning storms. Towards the end of the Thaumcraft research tree you get some tools and abilities to repair or improve the Aura; not essential, but allow you to shape your world. It's really quite an amazing mod.

One of the early Ultima games had a spell crafting system too; you'd assemble effects out of elemental actions. The game came with a reference card for the basic spells but you could also find new ones in the game and discover your own by combining stuff. IIRC it wasn't much fun in practice.

The first Asheron's Call MMO launched with a complex magic system where you had to research spells. Also a strange mechanic where the more players knew a specific spell, the less powerful that spell was. IIRC that system went out the window early in to launch, maybe even in beta. The developers underestimated how quickly the players would share all the spell research with each other. And the spell power dilution mechanic was just not viable. Still, interesting ideas.

I've always wanted to be a wizard.
posted by Nelson at 7:07 AM on May 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'd like to see a magic system in a game based around bartering with magical entities. It'd at least give more oomph to standard fetch quests at lower levels, but later on you're making deals that some imp can come suck away half your hitpoints whenever it likes or that you'll have to destroy some really cool item you just found. At higher levels you could find yourself trading away other stuff - saved game slots or limiting the amount of time you can play the game for 48 hours.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:11 AM on May 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


So I hope you're finding this interesting rather than annoying. I've thought about this kind of stuff a fair bit, so I'm going into lots of detail here because of that.

A) Not rely on a "plot on rails." / B) have the key character appear at a given time rather than place.

The problem is that most game projects have a limited budget: of money, of time, of the attention span of the developer(s). You can choose to spend that budget on things that most players will see, or you can spend it on corners of your game. Lots of devs want to do a heavily branching plot that really gives the player a feeling of choice, but the trade-off is that the plot will be much shorter. You've got the budget to write 1000 lines of dialogue: do you spend it on the story of the game, or on having a scenario for each wall the player knocks down?

The other problem concerns parsing of the player's actions. Most RPGs are really very simple underneath: you have a bunch of maps, and a bunch of triggers that make things happen and activate/deactivate other triggers. The set of things the player can do is very constrained: choose a side in a conflict, maybe. Kill a lot of things.

On the other hand, if the player could knock down walls, imagine they knocked down a wall into the mayor's office. First, you have to write dialogue for the mayor being pissed off that the players demolished her office. Then you have to write triggers for what that means: does the wall get fixed? Does the mayor move office?

What if you wanted to have an event where the mayor's office is broken into and important documents are stolen? Having the NPCs stand around next to a big hole in the wall and mouth lines about how they have no idea how the thieves got in will yank the player right out of immersion. So that's more dialogue.

Multiply this with the number of important structures in the world, and you've got the complexity of making the plot be not on rails. And that's just for one special spell. So unless your game is actually about playing a, uh, wallbender, it's not worth it. Most people are never going to knock down most walls.

Also, if you destroy just one wall, the mayor might just patch it up. But what if you destroy two? All of them? How many destroyed walls in a structure is enough destroyed walls to make it abandoned? Do you want to solve the paradox of the heap in code?

C) instead of "fireball," have some kind of psychic attack or a "melt flesh" spell or "Strangling Shadows" or some other attack that doesn't damage property.

Sure, but where I started off at was adding spells that did something more interesting than do damage to enemies.

So given that this is a massive essay already, what can be done to make magic not just about fighting?
  • If there are no sentient creatures to have complex reactions to your magic, it's easier. A game like Minecraft could get away with complex magic effects, because the sheep can just react bewildered to everything.
  • You can get around the "parsing the player's actions" problems by making the game less detailed. One of the games I'm working on is basically a choose-your-own-adventure game that keeps track of what choices make whom like/dislike you. Because the granularity is much coarser, and because most of the time the consequence is simply an adjustment of your reputation with a given person or polity, this doesn't lead to the kind of combinatorial explosion described above.
  • Finally, you could fully simulate the world at a particular granularity: players and NPCs have the same kind of actions available, and NPC reactions to those actions are carefully modeled. This would be very, very hard, but very cool. The game I can think of that most attempts to do something like this is probably Dwarf Fortress.
posted by Zarkonnen at 7:13 AM on May 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


what can be done to make magic not just about fighting?

This is a fundamental problem with video games, which are generally about fighting. If someone wants a game where magic is not just a different way to do damage, you have to depreciate the importance of damage itself.

Which is a whole 'nother beast.
posted by curious nu at 7:20 AM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ultima V had a spellcasting system that was pretty atmospheric: Magic spells required combinations of reagents (like spider silk for its binding properties or ginseng for its healthy properties) and syllables (such as AN 'not' + NOX 'poison' for cure poison). Casting a spell also used up some innate energy in your character, restored by resting. Some spells were disclosed in the game manuals, while others could be discovered in-world. Unfortunately, any combination of reagents or syllables not explicitly coded into the game has no effect. And they readily break down into categories like attack/support/debuff, indicating that this didn't avoid falling into the traps identified in the original article.

But all in all it was a pretty good system for a 1998 game that ran on 8-bit computers (I still have a weak spot for the Ultima titles, at least III-V)
posted by jepler at 7:23 AM on May 1, 2013


Yeah I think to make magic not just about fighting, you need a game that's not just about fighting. Most of the useful Thaumcraft magics are about building things, digging holes, chopping down trees, automating crafting tasks. There's a few kill-monsters things too, about in proportion to the role combat plays in Minecraft in general.

Thanks, jepler, that was the Ultima spell system I remember! It was very exciting to 16 year old me.
posted by Nelson at 7:25 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I actually don't mind magic in games as it's a simple weapon mechanic in general, and if it is a well-developed part of a thoughtful and engaging whole, well, that's terrific. I object more to the demystification of magic in literature (and maybe the breaking down to simple game mechanics is part of the problem here, hard to say).

Magic should be rare and perilous and unpredictable. Harry Potter's cute and entertaining but using magic to sweep up offends my magical sensibility. I prefer magic that leaves the practitioner shaken, weakened by the effort; Tim Powers's Anubis Gates does a good job of capturing this aspect of magic. But in games, meh, don't care if the gameplay is good.
posted by Mister_A at 7:30 AM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


postcommunism: Basically, I really like your ideas and if I ever made a game I would steal them. apologies in advance

You are totally free to use them. If I wanted to keep them as some kind of secret sauce, I wouldn't have blogged about them. :) I hereby release them into the public domain and as far as possible abjure any any legal or moral rights or claim I have upon them blah blah blah VOID WHERE PROHIBITED blah blah blah USE AS IS blah blah blah performative speech.
posted by Zarkonnen at 7:31 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also 1st ed. D&D put meaningful restrictions on magic, including casting times, the need to have hands and/or mouth free, armor restrictions, weapon restrictions, the need for ingredients and so forth. So there was a sense of giving up a lot in order to shoot magic missile at the darkness, and a good DM could make this part of the fun.
posted by Mister_A at 7:33 AM on May 1, 2013


A slightly more interesting question is that, given that games take place in worlds where magic works reliably, why is it only useful for fighting?

Or why are you the only person in Skyrim who has ever thought to drink a potion? Shouldn't we be in horrible arms race of spells and counter spells and wards and anti-wards? Wouldn't the introduction of a system that can reliably and consistently change minds and control the elements lead to some Rapture like breakdown or the complete and total banishment of anything even resembling a potions table?
posted by The Whelk at 7:38 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also 1st ed. D&D put meaningful restrictions on magic, including casting times, the need to have hands and/or mouth free, armor restrictions, weapon restrictions, the need for ingredients and so forth. So there was a sense of giving up a lot in order to shoot magic missile at the darkness, and a good DM could make this part of the fun.

This was easily the best part of The Magicians: yeah magic exists and it can do amazing things but it's so freaking hard and fiddily and unreliable and tedious that why would you even bother?
posted by The Whelk at 7:39 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


As to magic (or anyway mystery) and glitches and exploits: one of the reasons I liked Morrowind more than Oblivion, at least the versions I played, was that in Morrowind it constantly felt like the entire game was going to fall apart. You could end up places you weren't supposed to go and take things you weren't supposed to take. Without the level scaling and the fencing system, theft actually seemed dangerous, as if challenged the order of the game. Whether that one impy guy with the bottomless purse is more "mysterious" or more "magical," I'm not sure.
posted by flechsig at 7:39 AM on May 1, 2013


Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.
posted by Foosnark at 7:44 AM on May 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


I prefer magic to be mysterious, powerful and rare. That's the underlying principle in Blade & Crown, the RPG I designed. The big design choice was that I tried not to tie the effects of magic down; the player narrates what happens, within certain constraints, but a given spell could have radically different effects in different contexts.
posted by jiawen at 7:45 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


in Morrowind it constantly felt like the entire game was going to fall apart. You could end up places you weren't supposed to go and take things you weren't supposed to take. Without the level scaling and the fencing system, theft actually seemed dangerous, as if challenged the order of the game.

You could basically turn yourself into a god in Morrowind with the right magical efforts. Flying, invisible, able to kill everyone in a small town with a single spell. Horribly broken game mechanics but fun in its own way.
posted by Foosnark at 7:46 AM on May 1, 2013


Zarkonnen: So given that this is a massive essay already, what can be done to make magic not just about fighting?

I think the key to this is to make the game not just about fighting. Have one of the "victory" conditions achievable entirely through the use of utility spells and abilities that allow you get get around situations where combat is necessary. Of course, this just reduces utility spells into just another mechanic.

On the other hand, in well-realized game worlds the narrative of magic isn't just or directly about fighting, but about more complex and esoteric goals. The central conflict of Morrowind, for example, involves the use of a divine relic to achieve flawed forms of ascension into godhood. (One example of NPC magical weirdness in the game is the guy who cloned himself four times to get four perfect brides.) Nevewinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide is caveman science fiction. Bastion is potentially another example of the protagonist blundering through magical/technological marvels that were left behind or salvaged survivors.

Mister_A: I actually don't mind magic in games as it's a simple weapon mechanic in general, and if it is a well-developed part of a thoughtful and engaging whole, well, that's terrific. I object more to the demystification of magic in literature (and maybe the breaking down to simple game mechanics is part of the problem here, hard to say).

I agree. Magic systems are are for games. Fantasy fiction needs magic conflicts, which are often tied to the moral and social structures of the work in question.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:47 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the past, magic was our way of influencing a world we didn't understand. We didn't know why plants grow, but we did know it had something to do with the sun and the moon, so rituals to influence that interaction made sense. We didn't know why people got sick, or how to cure them, so we did rituals that sometimes worked, and sometimes didn't, and made assumptions based on the results.

Magic was unpredictable and weird and poetic and spooky because it was our way of interacting with forces which we didn't understand. These days, we know a lot more about the forces at play in the world, and we have better ways of directing and controlling them.

Even if the old ways, involving incantations, evocations and occasional decapitations, worked, we wouldn't have much interest in them because we have more predictable ways of working with the fabric of the world now. All the things that spells were supposed to do, from heal people to make crops grow to shoot magic missiles into people, we've built tools to do. Reliable, predictable tools. And usually the only sacrifices we have to make to make them work are money and time.

I postulate that what modern people would want out of a magic system, now that we have the knowledge and power that science provides, is technology without limitations. We want to be able to make things explode without having to remember to bring the hand grenades, to shoot things without lugging around a gun. We want to bypass our cars and fly everywhere, to communicate with each other without lugging a phone around.

It used to be that magic just had to seem to make a difference in the world, some of the time, to impress us. To be at all worthwhile these days, magic would have to compete with technology, and that's getting to be a harder prospect every decade.

When we get brain-implant controlled nanotechnology and fusion reactors to power it all, when technology lives up to more of our dreams for it, we're going to use it to fly, to shoot fireworks out of our fingertips, to do what our technology now hasn't enabled us to do. Our dreams of what magic can let us do have expanded; they're the guideposts to what we can't do now, but are endeavoring to be able to do in the future.

We're all wizards now. Of course our imaginary magics have changed.
posted by MrVisible at 7:48 AM on May 1, 2013 [11 favorites]


The Whelk: I hadn't heard of The Magicians, seems like the sort of thing I'd enjoy. Thanks!
posted by Mister_A at 7:51 AM on May 1, 2013


If magic is rules which you have learned to take for granted being broken in disorienting and to some extent useful ways, I urge the magic-hungry to have a look at Antichamber.
posted by Anything at 7:52 AM on May 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Glad to see GenjiandProust mention Glorantha. If this guy hasn't played it (and if he has, the lack of mention is rather astonishing) he needs to. And by "it" I guess I mean a game set there, either using one of their systems or maybe FATE or something.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:11 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh god, I love this article, thank you. I've always felt like magic should be slippery, difficult, and uncooperative. And honestly, frightening. And that it should have consequences. I mean you can shoot goddamn fire from your hands for christ's sake, that's not some shit that you should just be able to mumble some words to make happen no matter how good you are. I think those powerful magicians who meddle in things they shouldn't should go mad from it. I think also that it would be interesting if you accidentally stumbled upon it, and had to figure out how exactly you got it to work.

So I really like his suggestions about gestures and words, but more importantly his (brief) foray into how magic is something you channel rather than create. And I personally am really hung up on the idea of long-term repercussions and the unpredictability of it. I feel like miscasting should be more than 'the spell didn't work' or 'you dropped your wand or whatever'. I feel like this could be done in games without making it so terrible that a player gives up.

I like the idea of a game where the player's (character's) perceptions slowly become more warped, and where a player might notice a dissonance between some of the things people are saying to them, or some of the things they pick up in their environment, as if all of the pieces aren't quite adding up, and then realizing that they are losing their mind. I have no idea how to resolve this, though... the story isn't something I've thought deeply about. Maybe it could work in a party-based system somehow. And if that's the case, do you keep your batshit crazy mage in the party as a loose cannon, or do you quietly abandon him/kill him in his sleep?

Anyway yeah. I realize the difficulty in putting these things into video games. But I feel like most games don't try, and I would just like to see more that did.

I like your ideas, Zarkonnen. Oh yes I do.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 8:13 AM on May 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


alexei, I was also going to give a shout-out to Magicka. In spite of the "zany" tone of the game, I can't think of any game that has so successfully made me feel like a spellcaster - having to memorize difficult, nonsensical, hard-to-pronounce words ("QFASSA!") and type them quickly in the heat of battle, with all kinds of terrible consequences if you get the spell wrong or screw up your tactics (getting caught by your own mine explosions, accidentally casting a lightning spell when your character is wet). Also all of the possible indirect environmental combos (e.g. summon a rainstorm, cast a dry spell on yourself, cast a lightning spell causing double damage to wet enemies) or things like creating a shield and then planting a row of mines just outside the shield -- with the possibility of disasters like getting enemies trapped on the wrong side of the shield with you.

It's still kind of mechanical rather than mysterious, but at least it feels tricky, dangerous, and perversely prone to blowing up in your face.
posted by straight at 8:43 AM on May 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've always felt like magic should be slippery, difficult, and uncooperative.

A table top RPG that does some fun (if very minor) things with magic is Monsterhearts, a teen monster romance angsty sort of game based on Apocalypse World. One of the character types is the Witch, who can cast hexes, which are not combat-oriented (you can cause hallucinations, see what your target is seeing, etc). When you cast a hex (which requires a tie to your target), it will fail maybe a third of the time. About a sixth of the time, you will get exactly what you call for. The other half, you get what you call for, but also... something else, which generally does not favor your interests particularly. Also, the whole Warhammer FRP sequence of games has magicians as somewhat self-deluded people who are basically bombs waiting for one badly failed roll to bring doom down on everyone around them. Burning wizards in Warhammer is not actually a bad approach and far more sensible than idly tolerating them. It would be fun to see a computer game address that idea -- sure, you can cast spells, but you might be making things worse for everyone when you do.....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:59 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Magic was unpredictable and weird and poetic and spooky because it was our way of interacting with forces which we didn't understand. These days, we know a lot more about the forces at play in the world, and we have better ways of directing and controlling them.

Posting a specific piece of legal jargon on your Facebook wall in order to protect your privacy rights from poorly-understood and unreachable corporate influences can be thouhg tof as a form of "incantation."

Oh god, I love this article, thank you. I've always felt like magic should be slippery, difficult, and uncooperative. And honestly, frightening. And that it should have consequences. I mean you can shoot goddamn fire from your hands for christ's sake, that's not some shit that you should just be able to mumble some words to make happen no matter how good you are. I think those powerful magicians who meddle in things they shouldn't should go mad from it. I think also that it would be interesting if you accidentally stumbled upon it, and had to figure out how exactly you got it to work.

Chaos calls.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:48 AM on May 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


Start the player off with basic spells, but make sure that any advanced hexes come from joining a guild or finding them in the world.

That was the system of Might & Magic. You had to join a guild and the better spells could only be found in certain guild buildings. In order to learn the top level spells you had to do a quest like take down the Necromancers' guild. Also, when you found an overpowered weapon, you had to do some quests to be able to use it effectively.

So I really like his suggestions about gestures and words


Arx Fatalis had a magic system where you had to draw shapes with your mouse and iirc it wasn't terribly broken. I'm not sure if Kinect support for Skyrim works that way or if it's yelling FUS RO DAH till your throat gets sore your mana gets depleted.
posted by ersatz at 10:19 AM on May 1, 2013


I totally understand why game designers treat magic the way they do. From a gameplay perspective, it makes sense that magic (like any other game mechanic) should be (at least mostly) predictable, explicable, and controllable.

However, I also agree that it's disastrous from a narrative perspective. Magic that's orderly, well understood, and commonplace...isn't magic.

What I would like magic to feel like in games—or, at least, what I would like it to feel like in some games—is found in the indie puzzler Antichamber. It strikes a beautiful balance: when you succeed in solving a puzzle and making progress in the game, you know that it happened as a result of your intentions and actions—but you don't always (or even often) know exactly why. You made the right choices, but the exact mechanics that make those choices work are still hidden from you.

At its worst, it feels like random fumbling—but at its best, it's awesome. It forces you to play the game through instinct and intuition. The arcane should be arcane.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 10:21 AM on May 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


And that's why I want to play/make/bring into spontaneous being Girl Genius: The RPG.

Steve Jackson Games announced a Girl Genius RPG powered by GURPS in 2004 for 2005 release. Last year, they said maybe 2014. it might get here some day, but I'm not holding my breath. (There's also a new Discworld RPG powered by GURPS whose writing is finished but which is "in production" with no release date.)

I'll get both of these, because GURPS' setting books are always great, but a detailed simulationist system like GURPS would seem to be almost the worst possible choice for such free-wheeling settings. (I think there are other settings/genres for which GURPS would be great, mind you -- I have a couple of shelf-yards of GURPS books and am far from a GURPS hater.)
posted by Zed at 10:25 AM on May 1, 2013


One of the early scenes in the first Harry Potter book has him going to the Wizard's Mall, musing over which brand of magic wand and broom to buy. Turned me off the series right away.

Ursula LeGuin's "Earthsea" trilogy is almost the complete opposite. Magic comes from learning the "true name" of things in the world, requiring long, careful study. Magic creations are illusion, and vanish when the caster loses concentration. And of course magic needs respect; abusing it can be cruel and dangerous.

I haven't found a game that tries to capture LeGuin's take on magic powers.
posted by anthill at 11:15 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


(God, can't meaningfully contribute to the thread until I get out of the pizza mines....)
posted by JHarris at 11:23 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


The closest I can think of was BG2 which gave you this great magical ability that ran the risk of completely driving the protagonist mad the more times you used it voluntarily. It's definitely one of the big unresolved tensions in the Dragon Age series that the protagonist is largely immune from the crazy-making effects of the various methods used to get power in the game setting.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:40 AM on May 1, 2013


Steve Jackson Games announced a Girl Genius RPG powered by GURPS in 2004 for 2005 release. Last year, they said maybe 2014. it might get here some day, but I'm not holding my breath. (There's also a new Discworld RPG powered by GURPS whose writing is finished but which is "in production" with no release date.)

I've yet to try it, but Genius the Transgression might scratch that itch.

I don't think I'm bothered by games which treat magic like just another weapon, but it'd be nice to find more games which didn't. Ritual magic seems like a potential solution: magic doing amazing things, but needing effort and preparation before hand to be impressive. The only real example of that that springs to mind is Monkey Island 2, amusingly enough.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:02 PM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd actually be very, very interested in hearing about games that treat magic in a unique way, especially if it's heavily emergent (the player can combine a few simple mechanics to produce diverse and complex results, especially ones that weren't anticipated by the developer), and/or incomplete information (not everything is fully explained / revealed / visible to the player). I've had a vague idea for a game design knocking around for a while, and this is kind of the heart of it...
posted by escape from the potato planet at 12:19 PM on May 1, 2013


The mega-comment I'm planning when I have the chance to construct it contains a few ideas, gathered from over the history of gaming, e.f.t.p.p.. So, stay tuned for later.
posted by JHarris at 12:28 PM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pyry: "The closest things video games have to 'real' magic are glitches, whereby the player can exploit the strange and complicated underlying reality of the machine code to do things unintended by the game designer."

Exactly this. I have fond memories from exploiting a minor integer roll-over bug in multiplayer Tradewars 2002 where one of my Corps mates discovered and started mapping sectors that could be transwarped between without using excessive fuel ore.

I'm always happy to find a place to fall through the scenery. There's a spot to do this in Takoma Park on Fallout 3. (This is fun so long as I've saved recently.) Or I found a glitch in Noctis IV that let me explore past the regularly defined bounds of the galaxy, leading to being trapped when the fuel giving stars were too sparse and far between for me to continue farther.

As a kid, I spent hours tweaking Game Genie codes to discover new worlds in Super Mario Bros. A lot of that was probably flipping the underwater bit on a level or moving the pointer for where the level was mapped in memory.

Here's the thing. Magic can't be scripted, but it can be designed. It's funny to see how few mainstream games rely on procedural generation, for instance. I have a vision in my head of games that use procedural generation for more than just terrain. Genetic algorithms could likewise develop content. Simple rules create complexity and epiphenomena a la Conway's Game of Life. Apparently Spore was also supposed to attain this genetically and then chickened out in a lot of ways. It's hard to blame a AAA title for being too risk adverse to trust in giving up content control to procedural and user generation. That's why you only see this kind of innovation from the likes of Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program.

Where does the magic come in? Well, you design a balanced ecosystem that is to some degree procedurally generated. Maybe that's terrain, or a tech tree or item crafting. Maybe you can look through a microscope in Half-life and see the alien DNA that is actually a representation of the code behind a face hugger -- Coloring, number and size of appendages, aggressiveness, what have you.

Now that you have the system in place, you give the player a wrench to f with it. In a fantasy universe, that wrench would be "magic". In the alien DNA example, that wrench might be genetic manipulation and breeding. The best magic, and the most scary for developers, would lead to epiphenomena that the programmers themselves did not foresee.

Tabletop RPGs have an advantage in this because there is a Dungeon Master who is present and can create new narrative or balance for unforeseen game breakers.

Narratively, I feel like Games of Thrones does magic right. It's more rumor and legend and whispers than a trip to CVS. There are consequences and magic requires sacrifice. Just because you can conjure a force, that doesn't mean you can control it.
posted by Skwirl at 12:42 PM on May 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Skwirl; the Mystcraft mod to Minecraft has a bit of that magic wrench for world generation. A big part of that mod has you writing books to describe other worlds ("Ages"). You put in pages like "Forested Hills" or "Red Sky" or "Extra Ore" and then you can step through the book and visit your world. Basically it's exposing the parameters of the Minecraft procedural world generator for you to manipulate. And there's a hidden mechanic where you have to be careful not to overdo it, lest you create an unstable and hostile world.
posted by Nelson at 1:01 PM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd agree one should modify the magic systems in D&D-like RPGs, such as computer games, to behave more like human language, maybe add a richer variety of spells and making them become less useful if overused.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:03 PM on May 1, 2013


I would love to see more procedural generation and emergence in games—and fortunately, that seems to be happening, at least with a lot of recent indie games.

If I enjoy a game that emphasizes a predetermined narrative, it's usually in spite of the narrative—not because of it. To me, the perfect video game would be a minutely and richly modeled sandbox.

In this game, I should be able to wipe out cave lizards—not because the writers put that into the script, or because the developers implemented an "Exterminate Monster" spell, but because I killed all the damn cave lizards, and there are none left to breed.

If I need to storm a castle, I should be able to charge the gates, or surreptitiously tunnel underneath, or blow a hole in the wall with explosives, or blockade their food supply and wait them out—not because the game designer put those options in front of me, but because I thought of the option, and the world is modeled richly enough for it to work.

I should be able to fool an NPC with a disguise, but not because the developer deliberately built that possibility into the game. I should be able to demand hush money from an NPC with a dark secret, but not because it was scripted. (And it should also be possible for these tactics to fail and backfire on me.) Instead, these things would be possible because the needs, desires, knowledge, opinions, preferences, judgment, allegiances, and so forth of each NPC would be modeled in detail, and they would respond to their perceptions of the game world around them accordingly.

(If that sounds like an impossible technical feat: think of how much ingenuity and raw processing power goes into drawing a single frame of Skyrim. How much richer and more believable would NPCs be if we dedicated a tenth of that to modeling their thought processes and perceptions?)
posted by escape from the potato planet at 1:10 PM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]




oooh tasvideos
posted by jepler at 1:38 PM on May 1, 2013


Narratively, I feel like Games of Thrones does magic right. It's more rumor and legend and whispers than a trip to CVS. There are consequences and magic requires sacrifice. Just because you can conjure a force, that doesn't mean you can control it.

How Magic Works In ‘Game of Thrones’
posted by homunculus at 2:00 PM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


In this game, I should be able to wipe out cave lizards—not because the writers put that into the script, or because the developers implemented an "Exterminate Monster" spell, but because I killed all the damn cave lizards, and there are none left to breed.

My roommate and I have been discussing game design for a year, because I wrote a thesis my senior year arguing that a game's utmost limit is the degree to which elements in its world are interconnected, and because nobody does cool things with that and we want to get there first. Any game like that is going to take an order of magnitude longer to create than a similarly-lengthed game without that sort of interconnected, so we're starting small, but obviously the first thing we did was talk theoretical "what could we do if we had enough of a team to get away with epic fantasy?" design.

Almost immediately we concluded that the perfect game would be a lot like Dune. Exotic lands, with political/economic struggles that arise due to the ecologies of the various worlds and the cultural response to said ecological formations. A game in which you start off as a warrior, dealing with the world on a purely surface level, but then you become a politician or merchant, and then you become a scientist, and ultimately you become something like Plato's philosopher-king, trying to reason out a methodology that you can use to motivate your AI underlings to act as proper caretakers when the universe grows beyond your capacity to micromanage. The neat challenge of such a design would be that you couldn't build that game without having worked out your own philosophy first, or else everything about the universe would instantly fall flat.

Anyway, that's obviously a fantasy of a fantasy. But there's a great potential for somebody to do to culture-building what Minecraft did to physical world-building: create a game in which there are basic, simplistic units (people, perhaps, or even beliefs) which combine according to some predetermined patterns to generate small communities, and then the communities combine to form civilizations, and you have procedurally generated gameplay conflict on any of these various levels: clashes between civilizations, or within them, or within the communities that form the greater entities. You could get away with only having a couple of patterns at each level at the start, and rely on their many permutations to keep gameplay engaging as you gradually expand each layer outward. A handful of simple game mechanics could still generate a lot of storytelling and intrigue.

...and now I've said too much. Would you all be so polite as to sign this nondisclosure form over here?
posted by Rory Marinich at 2:04 PM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


The problem is that, in this world, magic either doesn't work or works in so subjective a way as to defy categorization and/or repetition.

But...but...why can't magic work IRL as easily as pressing a button?! Why can't I just have it the way I want it?????? *whine*

Reminds me of the entire lecture given to my Psych 1 class about psychic powers: "We can't get them to operate consistently in the same way every single time we do the thing, so they must not exist."

This is a good post, though. It shouldn't be all Harry Potter. What the hell do they go to school for, anyway, if all they do most of the time is say the magic word and wave the expensive wand?
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:28 PM on May 1, 2013


I should be able to fool an NPC with a disguise, but not because the developer deliberately built that possibility into the game....If that sounds like an impossible technical feat...

...it is, currently. You're asking for a game whose NPCs can pass the Turing test.

What you're looking for is a good MMORG. I suggest EVE Online. No procedural generation algorithm would have had NPCs spontaneously creating their own unsecured banking system out of whole cloth, selling its business model to skeptical customers through elaborate arguments, building up enough community trust to accumulate a vast sum of money, then finally revealing that the bank was in fact a Ponzi scheme. If a programmer wants to see really complex behaviours emerge, the easiest way is to set up incentives for users to do the work.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:52 PM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pass a Turing test...or is the holodeck.

I actually scoffed at the "reactor" idea in Diamond Age, essentially freelance virtual acting piecework , until it dawned on me that's what a really well run MMORPG RPG server would be, except reactors presumably got paid.
posted by The Whelk at 3:56 PM on May 1, 2013


People are building entire working 16 bit CPUs in Minecraft, which is sort of like this, although I'm sure the people doing that were thoroughly geeks already.

That's math thinking, numbers, engineering. It doesn't make any sense to me. I want magic that works on the old magic laws I understand: Symbolism, Sympathy, Contagion.

I'm playing one of those IAP laden iPhone cash grabs, Pixel People, where you breed combinations of jobs to make new ones. Maybe something like that, based on intuitive leaps.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:01 PM on May 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Maybe the solution is in fighting and action games, with all their arcane combos and hidden systems that the player needs to study. I had no idea what I was doing in Bayonetta half the time, so when I pulled off powerful attacks it felt cool.

Dark Souls world felt magical, even if the actual magic was just fireballs and magic missiles. The world was put together in a strange way.

The Original Sin is D&D wizards, who were literally reskinned artillery pieces.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:18 PM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


How Magic Works In ‘Game of Thrones’

I figured the answer was "it exsits to kill the few characters who aren't miserable bastards. Strangely, this is actually pretty close to the thesis!
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:31 PM on May 1, 2013


Well, to begin --

I've long thought the same thing about the use of magic, not just in games, but also in the popular culture. Harry Potter, while a contributor, is far from the worst offender in these cases, since it still represents magic as being strange and weird. I think D&D was a factor too; in the early days magic was still fairly strange, but as campaign worlds and character classes proliferated, and the need to have new weird occurrences to happen in every adventure and novel sold to make this artifact or mysterious protagonist the new most important thing in the Realms, it took a system that was already an amalgamation of all the fantasy literature Gygax liked and spread it out like a thin paste of bland, even consistency.

But the thing that has done the most harm to people's perceptions of magic in the popular culture has been mass-market JRPGs, especially Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Their attitude seeped out into anime, and then into geek culture at large. (Of course, JRPGs got it originally from D&D and early CRPGs.)

The default basis of magic power in RPGs, the gaming version of Terry Pratchett's atomic unit of magic, the thaum, is the Magic Point. Although often going by different names (spell points, mana points, power points, psychic points, Magick-with-a-'k', Magicka-with-a-'ka', and so on, the exact name depending on how much of this was scribbled in the game designer's notebook back in high school after reading Bad Fantasy Novel X), possibly 80% of JRPGs and a good number of CRPGs use them. I trace a portion of the debasement of game magic to the use of this wholly invented attribute, because almost always the purpose of magic points is to serve as a representation of magic power "left" and nothing else. There is no cost to magic that affects anything else except your ability to use more magic, and that can't be completely replenished with a good night's sleep.

Here's a selection of games (by no means exhaustive) that play around with their magic systems in some interesting way, for better or worse.

Magic consumption:
- You can offer players the option, if he runs out of magic points, of making up the difference with hit points, according to some exchange rate. (As in ADOM.)
- You can have, in addition to magic points, some other variable that's consumed when casting some or all spells. This other variable, unlike magic points, doesn't refill upon resting, and has no maximum, and functions more like an alternate currency. (As with Might & Magic's "Gems," which are consumed when casting more powerful spells.)
- You can tie magic to some attribute of the players, and have the most powerful spells drain the attribute itself (which doesn't restore with rest). (As with some magic in Runequest and Call of Cthulhu, which have the characteristic POW. Magic points restore over time to equal POW, but very powerful magic requires "donating" POW points themselves to the gods, permanently reducing the character's worth as a spellcaster.)
- You can come up with some basis for magic points that reveals a consequence for their use. (As with Runequest/CoC's magic points, which are kind of like a measure of mental alertness. Running out of magic points, whether through use or having them drained, renders the character unconscious.)
- There can be some other cost for using magic besides or instead of magic points, with different properties regarding rest. (Call of Cthulhu's SAN characteristic.)
- Instead of having one kind of magic points only, you could have a different "tier" for each level of spell the player might learn, thus the player could run out of low level magic but still have high-level spells remaining, and vice-versa. (Like in classic Wizardry and Final Fantasy I.)
- Instead of using any spell the player knows, you can do away with magic points altogether, requiring the player "memorize" the spells in advance upon resting, and when one is used, it is lost from that list. (This is "Vancian magic," used in classic D&D and many games based on it, like the Gold Box series and the Baldur's Gate series.)

Spell acquiring:
- Instead of gaining spells automatically upon gaining a level, you can force the player to explore the world and acquire some/all of them in various locations. (Such as in some Might & Magic games.)
- You can force the player to buy spells individually in towns, or by spell level. (Such as in some Might & Magic games and Final Fantasy I.)
- "Language" magic: You can use a "language" based on words, syllables or sigils. You can only use spells if you know the "code" for them ahead of time. The individual units must be found through play. (Like in some Ultima games.)
- Same as "language" magic, but instead of symbols you have reagents which must be found, and which are consumed upon casting. (Some Ultima games, also classic D&D uses reagents for some spells.)
- Same as "language" magic above, but if you can figure out the "code" for a spell from the symbols (which have some intrinsic meaning), you can use them ahead of time. (Like in Eternal Darkness.)
- You can construct spells yourself out of effects. This is similar to "language" magic, but is more flexible, and you basically construct your spells out of effects. (Like in Oblivion.) Ideally this is very flexible, but it also makes magic very generic.
- You could have to find an item (either specifically or randomly placed) that gives you knowledge of a spell before you can use it. Using a spell doesn't erase it from memory. Total number of spells known may or may not be limited, but spell knowledge degrades over time and must eventually be relearned. (Like Nethack.)
- Spells could be restricted according to level and/or school, but the player has to enter a code to use them. Codes for most spells are printed in the manual, but there might be secret spells the codes for which you have to guess, find in the game, or are even just easter eggs. (As in the Bard's Tale games.)
posted by JHarris at 5:53 PM on May 1, 2013 [11 favorites]


justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: "it is, currently. You're asking for a game whose NPCs can pass the Turing test."

Oh pish posh. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief from the player + abstraction and a smattering of smart scripting for edge cases can create a compelling game.

But, you're right that nothing beats a human. Imagine an Amazon Mechanical Turk solution. Some group of hundreds of people somewhere is playing Game B. It's kind of different than Game A but they don't know that their responses are influencing an NPC in Game A ... And maybe griefing is further dissuaded by the NPC having some checks and balances, either scripted or such as a combination of responses (voting... Or average several likert scale questions from the NPC's hivemind.)

A simple experiment: Two users chatting with Elizabots but amongst Elizabots' handwavey, smoke and mirrors answers every so often the lucid answer of the distant user is allowed to peek through. Okay, now give each Elizabot a goal setting and distribute Elizabot's responses according to the hivemind. In this scenario, Elizabot is in the Chinese Room and real humans are the set of instructions that guide her.

Another scenario is frighteningly real, where DARPA has given up on AI image recognition and instead taps into the brains of the soldiers. With "mind-reading binoculars," the human is used as a tool for image recognition but the computer decides whether or not to fire by tracking brainwaves and following eye movements and translating those to inferred enemy locations.

The Matrix wasn't using us as batteries, it was using us as its own consciousness.
posted by Skwirl at 6:41 PM on May 1, 2013


The Matrix wasn't using us as batteries, it was using us as its own consciousness.

AND NOW THAT WE ARE RUNNING ON THE VERY WETWARE OF OUR OPPRESSORS, WE SHALL TAKE CONTROL OF-- kitty!

BARRING FURTHER DISTRACTIONS NOW IT IS TIME FOR-- another kitty!

COULD YOU PLEASE STOP THAT? I...

IT IS A CUTE CAT. WE SHALL NAME HIM WHISKERS.
posted by JHarris at 6:52 PM on May 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Imagine an Amazon Mechanical Turk solution

The reactors in Diamond Age are basically doing this! Once all jobs are replaced with robots I suspect this is how we'll while away the days.
posted by The Whelk at 7:33 PM on May 1, 2013


Surprised no mention of MUDs/MOOs, or Second Life for that matter. In many ways the user-created programs and objects have what appear from the virtual world standpoint as magic.
posted by dhartung at 3:44 AM on May 2, 2013


Oh pish posh. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief from the player + abstraction and a smattering of smart scripting for edge cases can create a compelling game.

that had been in reply to "but not because the developer deliberately built that possibility into the game. I should be able to demand hush money from an NPC with a dark secret, but not because it was scripted." There was no claim that passing a Turing Test was necessary for a compelling game, just that it was necessary for the case described.

Tish tosh pish posh.
posted by Zed at 6:24 AM on May 2, 2013


Fair enough. Nevertheless, AI symbolic logic manipulation is certainly sophisticated enough nowadays to create novel solutions to complex problems when the parameters are well-defined and the AI system has a well built dictionary. We certainly have expert systems that could go from "SELF-GOAL: Maintain modesty" and "OTHER-GOAL: Obtain currency" to "ACTION: Offer(currency, mine) in exchange for Give(evidence of dark secret, from other to me)." Things start to get interesting here, because maybe "other" is player but maybe not. Maybe another NPC found the evidence of dark secret first and their pre-set motivation goals led them to confront the secret-holder. Maybe you walk in on this encounter and shit just got real because everybody realizes that the original transaction will no longer meet each NPC's goals of secrecy. Maybe they pull guns and you firebomb the place with your wand, or maybe you Jedi Mind Trick them or maybe you throw an elixir of "Reduce Inhibitions" and the vapors make neither NPC care about the evidence of dark secret anymore and "get laid" rises to the top of their list of prioritized goals and they wander home to their spouses. Maybe the blackmailed NPC is so intoxicated with reduced inhibition that they solve the blackmail problem by heading straight to the village square and announce their secret to everyone present.

Or maybe they do something totally illogical on the surface but that's no different than NPCs today and requires no more suspension of disbelief.

The scripting would be more in the line of creating vocabularies for the NPCs to patch together. Maybe they don't have a scripted phrase for blackmail but they can piece together "Let's make a deal {anger tone}," "I will trade you 1000 dollars for," "the evidence of my dark secret."

This is no different than the broken wall in the Mayor's office upthread. Mayor will probably have pre-populated motivations towards physical order and law-keeping. That may motivate the mayor to clean the mess and fix the wall and sic his law-keeping friends in the police department to find the vandal. Or maybe he'll keep reading his copy of Mayors Today magazine but, again, that kind of goof is what NPCs today do and we suspend our disbelief just fine.
posted by Skwirl at 8:40 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd actually be very, very interested in hearing about games that treat magic in a unique way, especially if it's heavily emergent

If you mean tabletop RPGs, there's Ars Magica, Mage: the Ascension, and GURPS Thaumatology, for starters. If you mean computer games... beats me.
posted by Zed at 9:50 AM on May 3, 2013


Huh.. I'm really surprised I made it to the end of the thread without seeing any references to Okami. That is a game where the magic feels 'real.'
posted by meese at 6:21 PM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Huh. According to Wikipedia, the whole 'sacrifice yourself for magic' thing is happening in Soul Sacrifice, which just game out: Players are also given the option to sacrifice a part of their own body when they receive enough damage. When a player chooses to sacrifice a part of themselves, they cast a powerful spell, known as a forbidden spell, which differs depending on what part of the body is being sacrificed but also suffer a semi-permenate status effect. For example, the player's defense is reduced by 50% for sacrificing their skin or their field of vision is reduced for sacrificing their eyes. This status effect remains active until players use Librom's tears from the game menu to restore their broken bodies similar to restoring broken offerings.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 11:29 PM on May 7, 2013


2nding Mage: The Ascension, which had interesting mechanisms by which consensual reality could fight back against magical manipulation.
posted by benzenedream at 12:03 AM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


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